I sort of figured I could answer the question of how the issue of abortion plays out in Muslim countries. You likely feel the same way. Well, it turns out it is more complex than I thought. In fact, there is a remarkable variability on the issue in Muslim majority countries. The variability is Further, unlike, for example, the Catholic Church, Islam does not have a hierarchy of organised clergy, or a central authority which instructs Muslims in one single interpretation of the faith. On the contrary, different Muslim communities exist within the religion, including Sunni and Shi’a Muslims, which in turn are differentiated by the different schools of Islamic law to which they adhere. Therefore, no generalised account of the religion should be attempted.
On the one end of the spectrumabortion laws in Muslim-majority countries exemplified a generally conservative approach where 18 of 47 countries only legally permit abortions in cases where the life of the pregnant women is threatened (i.e. not in cases to preserve a woman’s physical or mental health, rape, foetal impairment, or for social or economic reasons). On the other end of the spectrum, 10 Muslim-majority countries allow abortion ‘on request’.
The diversity found in Muslim-majority countries is likely in part due to the variability of the Islamic position as well as many other factors including whether the legal system is based on Sharia law exclusively (e.g. Iran), a combination of Sharia law alongside civil or common law (e.g. Saudi Arabia), or whether the legal system is not formally based upon Sharia law at all (e.g. Turkey).
And then there is Iran. Beth Speake of the Center for Interdisciplinary Gender Studies, University of Leeds,, and currently the Administrator Sheffield Rape and Sexual Abuse Counselling Service Volunteer Social Policy Coordinator Sheaf Citizens Advice Bureau writes at e-International Relations,
The example of Iran is particularly interesting. Iranis a theocratic country, where the Shiite rule of the jurist was established in the Iranian Revolution of 1979, and the Muslim clergy or Ulama are involved in policy making and legislation (Mehryar, Ahmad-Nia and Kazemipour, 2007, p.353). In 1977, before the Revolution, abortion was made available on request provided it was prescribed by a qualified doctor, and the government was involved in an active family planning programme which had been established since 1967. This law was annulled by the new state immediately after the Revolution (Mehryar, Ahmad-Nia and Kazemipour, 2007, p.357), abortion was outlawed except to save the woman’s life, and sterilisation was banned. The official national family planning programme was abandoned, and the regime under the Grand Ayatollah Khomeini became overtly pronatalist, with procreation (within marriage) and fertility being extolled as key Islamic values (Boonstra, 2001, p.5). Over the next few years, the fertility rate in Iran increased dramatically (Obermeyer, 1994, p.46). However, attributing this change in policy purely to the triumph of Islamic values is misleading. In fact, in early 1980, when the revolution had ended, the Ministry of Health obtainedfatāwa from the Grand Ayatollah Khomeini and other respected ayatollahs stating that Iranian couples’ use of modern contraceptives was not contrary to Islamic principles (Mehryar, Ahmad-Nia and Kazemipour, 2007, p.354). Furthermore, though high fertility rates had been encouraged in response to heavy casualties during the war with Iraq between 1980 – 1988, by the late 1980’s, the negative effects of the war became apparent and worsening economic conditions, combined with a rapidly increasing population, obliged the leaders of the Islamic Republic to ‘re-evaluate its ideological stance with respect to population issues’ (Obermeyer, 1994, pp.46-47). Thus, a reproductive health and family planning programme was re-introduced in 1988 and now provides a wide range of contraception. Moreover, in April 2005 the Iranian parliament, despite opposition from the Islamic Guardian Council, approved a law which permits abortion in the first four months of gestation if the foetus is ‘physically or mentally handicapped’ (Hessini, 2007, p.80). Additionally, the law in Iran (along with only Tunisia and Turkey) allows for vasectomy procedures and tubal ligation (Boonstra, 2001, p.5).
Thus, a country ruled by some of the most conservative Muslim clerics has, in relation to other countries of the MENA region, a fairly permissive approach to abortion and family planning (Hessini, 2008, p.82). DeJong, Jawad, Mortagy and Shepard (2005), therefore argue that: ‘Iran’s efforts to address reproductive health issues in consonance with religious values in an important model for other Muslim countries’ (DeJong et al., 2005, p.50). From a more cynical perspective, it can be argued that the leaders inIran, as well as being religious clerics, are also a ‘pragmatic political elite’ who to some extent recognise the importance of co-opting women’s support to ensure the survival of the government regime (Marcotte, 2003, p.162). Crucially, it must be recognised that the economic and political considerations of the different governments have motivated them to respond in different ways to issues of reproductive rights. Thus, while the present government inIranrefers to the Islamic religious tradition to justify its more permissive policies in relation to abortion and reproductive rights, previously, more restrictive policies had also been legitimated with reference to Islamic principles (Obermeyer, 1994, p.47).
Ibrahim Syed, President of the Islamic Research Foundation, International writes,
The scholars all agree that abortion is forbidden after the first four months of pregnancy, since by that time the soul has entered the embryo but it would allow the use of RU486 (the "morning-after pill"), as long as it could be reasonably assumed that the fertilized egg has not become implanted on the wall of the uterus. Most scholars say that abortion is legal under Islamic Shari'ah (law), when done for valid reasons and when completed before the soul enters the embryo. To abort a baby for such vain reasons as wanting to keep a woman’s youthful figure, are not valid.
Muslims who argue that abortion is permissible up to four months, he writes:
Dr. Gamal Serour, Director of the International Islamic Center for Population Studies and Research at Al-Azhar University states,
Yet women in many Muslim communities face barriers to contraceptive access and family planning services due to religious and cultural misconceptions. The reality is that Islam is – and always has been – supportive of women’s reproductive rights. The family is the basic unit of a Muslim society, and the mother is the keystone of this unit. Islam is a progressive religion that encourages its followers to uphold principles and practices that ensure maternal and reproductive health, and family planning is a central component of such practices.
Islam does not forbid a woman from controlling the spacing and number of her pregnancies. A thorough review of the Holy Quran reveals no text (nuss) prohibiting the prevention or planning of pregnancy, and there are several traditions of the Prophet (PBUH) that indicate such practices are permissible. Many modern contraceptives and family planning methods, by analogy (kias), are similar to coitus interruptions (al-azl), which has been practiced since the time of the Prophet (PBUH). Modern contraceptive pills, injectables, implants, and other reversible methods were not known at the time of the Prophet (PBUH), but serve the same purpose as coitus interruptions as they temporarily prevent pregnancy. Hence they can – and should – be used today.
Of course, the real issue isn't what religious laws says, is not what religious scholars think, is not what any religious belief dictates, the real issue is the fact that a woman must be able to control her reproductive capacities, her body and not be dependent on any patriarchal notions of what to do with it. Patriarchy has a hard time existing the moment women take back themselves, seize the power over their lives, turn their backs on the priests, reverends, rabbis and mullas.
PS: I don't know about you, but I can help but notice that as soon as I got into quoting religious scholars, I found myself quoting MEN. Hmmm...
Anyway, I just found the piece below from Open Democracy interesting and informative. The author Naureen Sameem is a member of the international solidarity network Women Living Under Muslim Laws ( WLUML) and was the Harvard Public Service Fellow at WLUML and Stop Stoning Women campaign coordinator. A human rights lawyer and gender justice activist, she is a Women and Justice Fellow at Cornell Law School.